She Could Have Had a Gun -- and Then What?

ELLEN GOODMAN

January 15, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- Let me start with the story of Elizabeth McCandless Murray. Not the whole story of her life, just the terrible end of it when she become another in the grisly line of women battered and then killed by their husbands.

This was a Massachusetts woman who had done ''everything'' possible to save herself. She had followed the book. Filed criminal charges against her husband. Gotten a restraining order. Left her job. Gone into hiding. Taken a physical self-defense class. Hired a private detective.

Nevertheless, just before Christmas, when she went back to their apartment building to get the mail from a neighbor, the man who had started beating her 10 days after their marriage, caught her. He forced her into the apartment laundry room, shot her twice in the head and then shot himself. He had killed her despite ''everything.''

It was a story that struck a note of terror, and also hopelessness, helplessness. But one woman in her self-defense class begged to differ with the common view. In a letter to the editor the $H woman wrote, ''There was something else she could have done. She could have had a gun.''

She could have had a gun. This story and these words have slipped into women's conversations about guns. They became quietly, urgently, another entry in the debate -- sometimes internal, sometimes loud -- about gun use and gun control, about protection and danger.

Once the connection between women and guns seemed as remote as Calamity Jane. Today it's said that some 12 million to 15 million women own guns. We know for sure that more women are buying handguns than ever before. We know that they have been targeted by the gun lobby as buyers, voters and supporters. We know the sales pitch: self-defense.

Some women who see themselves as potential victims of violence have come to believe that if you can't ban them, buy them.

Just this month, Mirabella, the fashion magazine, ran the latest in a series of pieces about women and guns. The recurring bleak humor of the women learning to shoot was this: ''I'm in favor of gun control -- for men.''

The current issue of the 3-year-old publication, Women and Guns, carries its usual assortment of chic holsters to fit the female form, and another regular feature: the tale of a mother who saved herself and her children from an intruder. It includes an announcement of the National Rifle Association's program for women: ''Don't be a Victim.''

Despite this attention to the barrel of a female gun, this is not the only side of the argument. There are other women who have watched the cities turn into war zones. There are mothers who have seen arms escalate into some mutually assured destruction of civil order.

They too talk about self-defense, but in terms as broad as the reach of an assault weapon. They are starting to view gun control as ''their'' issue.

For every Elizabeth Swasey, director of the NRA's women's division, there is a Sarah Brady, guiding force behind the Brady Bill. If the handgun lobby talks to women about self-protection from violence one gun at a time, the anti-handgun advocate talks about the 10,000 Americans murdered by handguns every year, the 12 children killed every day.

It appears that women who have not been major players in domestic arms control any more than in foreign arms control have come to one of those forks in the road. Either they will work to disarm others, or more and more will arm themselves.

I understand the impulse to pick the sort of personal safety sold with a matching holster. But that sense of security is likely to be as false as the pouch in a gun purse. The danger is as real as the facts: Guns in the home are 43 times more likely to kill a family member or friend than an intruder. They raise the level of violence, not safety.

If we want to live in a fully armed country, try Somalia. If we want to see a country turn around, start with the Brady bill: a waiting period and a background check for arms buyers. Move on to a ban on assault weapons, mandated safety training, a promise to license guns the way we do cars. That's a beginning.

Would that help another Elizabeth McCandless Murray? It wouldn't -- and shouldn't -- bar a threatened woman from buying a gun. But would she be alive today if she'd had a gun? Maybe, if she had killed her husband first. Maybe, if she'd had her hand on the trigger every moment of her waking life. Maybe not. It's more important to prevent a man this dangerous from such easy access to arms.

Finally -- no maybes about it -- it's more powerful to flex our muscle collectively than to buy one more .38 caliber piece of ''personal protection.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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